CBHC and its members are proud to be part of Creating Community Solutions throughout Colorado, where Mental Health First Aid is emerging as a high priority for many communities.
It's an honor to be the adopted mother of two young adults. Life with them has been extraordinary, but I often tell people we live in an alternate universe most of the time. It's a place where just about everything I thought I knew about parenting became useless, except for the most important thing: love.
The stigma associated with mental illness makes the decisions about what you say and to whom you speak seem like walking a tightrope. You want to make a difference and get the reality out in the open. Yet you are so concerned about long-term ramifications on your family if you tell your story.
Both of my children have given me permission to talk about our situation in hopes it will be another step in our quest to end that stigma. The fact is, one in four people will experience some type of mental illness. It just isn't that unique.
When I met my son, his imploring, ice-blue eyes grabbing hold of me, I had no idea that embracing mental illness would one day become my passion. I knew nothing about the disease, nor did I want to know.
I brought my son home the week of Thanksgiving when he was nine months old. I remember crying as I held him while watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, with memories of watching the parade with my own parents flooding my mind. I was so very thankful.
At age 3, he was diagnosed with attachment disorder. I was a journalist, so naturally I researched and met with experts. I learned about the disorder, and we religiously attended therapy for the next five years.
Then, I adopted a 7-year-old girl. Within a year of my daughter coming to live with us, my son's bipolar gene was revealed.
Welcome to the nightmare of stigma.
Stigma is a world where most people watch and judge, and others run in fear. A few amazing people stand with you, but many times your friends and family simply don't have the tools or the knowledge to be truly helpful.
The long nights, battles with insurance, lack of resources and barriers to treatment are all amazingly difficult, but pale in comparison to the insipid tentacles of stigma that invade every decision.
Eventually, I made the heart-wrenching decision to send my son to live and receive 24/7 care in a residential treatment center for a period of time. I struggled with guilt, shame, fear and an immense frustration at the lack of information and support provided to families dealing with mental illness.
Consequently, my mother and I started a non-profit organization called Children's Help and Assistance for Residential Treatment (CHART), which helps families who adopt children diagnosed with mental illness or mood disorders.
Through this work, I've witnessed how families develop fierce love for their children and fierce hate for the disease. I learned that children — no matter their diagnosis — are amazing gifts, and their disease does not have to define your life. In fact, it can teach you how to embrace it.
After my son turned 18, I remember a police officer saying to me, "Aren't you relieved, now he's no longer your problem?" He spoke as if my role and love as a mother disappeared the day I was no longer legally responsible for him.
In truth, it was one of the most difficult days of my life because, as it is with most teens, my son wanted to experience the freedom of being an adult and making his own choices. Those choices have had myriad difficult consequences, which I could only stand back and helplessly watch happen.
CHART and 65 other Colorado groups have joined with Creating Community Solutions Colorado (CCSCO) to fight the stigma of mental illness in our state. CCSCO includes those who are diagnosed and their families, working collaboratively to develop programs aimed at reducing stigma in every region of the state.
I believe educating ourselves and our children about mental health will bust stigma. A great way to learn the basics we all need to know is to take a Mental Health First Aid course for adults or youth (mentalhealthfirstaid.org). Learn about depression and mood disorders, anxiety disorders, trauma, psychosis, and substance-use disorders.
For almost a decade, I did what I thought I should do as a mom: I fought mental illness. But the truth is, when you fight something, it fights back. Now I embrace mental illness and mental health.
We have had more than 20 Thanksgivings since I adopted my son. Some were joyous and some disastrous. For the past several years, I didn't know if I would even see him.
Then, this past Thanksgiving, my son showed up unexpectedly and I braced myself for what could have been a tense and emotional situation. It was actually a wonderful day — and a memory I will always cherish.
Diane Mulligan was news director at KMGH-TV during the Columbine High School shootings. Learn more about CCSCO on Facebook.